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Chapter 21: Uncertain Waters

The paradox of reality is that no image is as compelling
as the one which exists only in the mind's eye.

- Shana Alexander



Harry woke, squinting against the noon sun and grunting under his breath as he threw the covers over his head and burrowed deeper in an attempt to escape the blinding light. The sleep had left him drowsy and disoriented, but the bed was soft so he wasn’t about to complain or question it. He tensed as a low chuckle sounded behind him though, lying still as footsteps retreated slightly across the room and were followed by the jangling of curtains against the rail, the invasive light reduced to more tolerable levels that didn’t burn the back of his eyes. The footsteps returned as Harry closed his hand around his wand hidden beneath his pillow, turning over sharply in a way that almost tumbled him from the bed so he could aim it’s tip straight between the eyes of a rather bemused Ronald Weasley.

‘Um…’ Ron stuttered, crossing his eyes and peering down his nose, seemingly at a loss for things to say, not moving as he waited for Harry to speak; or at least lose the startled, yet oddly grateful, expression and close his mouth. Upon attaining neither he shrugged and continued, lifting himself onto his toes to look over the wooden stick and tightly clenched fist that held it. ‘You hungry, mate?’

‘Where’s Remus?’ Harry sounded panicked, lowering the wand slightly as his gaze flickered to the chair next to the bed, pillows crooked and squashed, then anxiously to the corners of the room, which were empty.

‘He had to go to the loo,’ Ron jabbed a thumb over his shoulder in the vague direction of the door at the far end. ‘I tell you, the man may be a great teacher, but he can’t hold his bladder worth anything. Third trip he’s made this morning.’ The weak joke had Harry focused back on Ron and actually looking at him as though he were real instead of some figment. He did seem rather intent on blinking, however, as if he truly expected the redhead to flash out of existence in the moment of darkness.

‘When did you get here?’ he finally asked.

‘Hour or so after you,’ Ron answered easily. ‘Look, are you going to put that thing down yet, only the twin’s have cursed me enough times this holiday and I’m getting a bit, you know, touchy about the whole thing.’ Harry looked at his wand as though seeing it for the first time, shoving it hastily under the covers with a sheepish look.

‘Yeah, sorry.’

Ron took the opportunity to nab the vacated seat, wriggling to get comfortable before extracting one of the cushions and throwing it haphazardly onto the nearest bed. ‘Don’t mention it,’ he said casually. ‘Just don’t get mad if you wake up late for class one morning and wonder why I left you to sleep.’ Harry chuckled at the comment, punching the pillows behind him before leaning back, keeping his gaze fixed on the far door. ‘So, are you?’ Ron distracted, causing him to look round again.

‘Am I what?’

‘Hungry?’ Ron questioned impatiently. ‘I swear mum practically threw me out of the house this morning. Didn’t even give me a minute for breakfast. Seemed to think you’d be dead before we got here and she wouldn’t have the time for her final goodbyes.’ Harry couldn’t see Molly anywhere in the room, although that didn’t mean she wasn’t around somewhere. ‘Don’t worry, she left again once she realised you weren’t about to kick it. Didn’t want to leave Ginny on her own in the house for long in case Death Eaters started battering down the door. I tried to tell her that it’s not like you’re a stranger to this place, and that Dumbledore wouldn’t send us such a cheery invite if you were, in fact, dead, but she wouldn’t listen,’ Ron finally paused for breath, cocking his head in consideration. ‘Though congratulations on getting in here before term even starts. Dunno if anyone’s managed that before.’

‘Is Hermione here too?’ Harry asked hopefully.

‘Nah, spending time with the muggles,’ Ron frowned as though her doing so was a personal insult. ‘She was going to come visit a few days ago, but they got upset, something about hardly seeing her anymore. That and they heard about You-Know-Who.’ Harry winced; he knew how the Dursleys…well, his Aunt, had taken the news of Voldemort’s return, and she had had Harry’s impending, increasingly likely death to buffer the news. He wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the dentists had locked Hermione in her room and forbidden her from leaving to keep her away from it all, knowing it was the only way they would manage to do so, and even then that it was unlikely to succeed. ‘I think she was forced to be creative.’

‘You mean she lied?’ Harry said with horrified amazement.

‘Hermione?’ Ron snorted. ‘I don’t think so. She may have stretched the truth a little about Hogwarts being the safest place for her and all…’

‘It is,’ Harry cut in bluntly.

‘I’m not arguing,’ Ron said earnestly. ‘But lets face it; the place isn’t exactly safe if we don’t stay in it. I think she may have avoided sharing that bit...’ Ron finally stopped at the look on Harry’s face, his freckles standing out as he blushed guiltily before continuing as if he had never said anything. ‘Anyway, she’s spending quality time with the parents,’ he finished lamely, attempting a weak smile as the door across the room opened and Remus stepped out. Ron jumped from the seat as though propelled, moving sheepishly out the way as Remus walked over, giving Harry a cursory examination that took in his pained expression before sitting back down.

‘I’m sorry,’ Harry blurted out, causing Remus to snap his mouth closed around whatever he had been about to say. ‘About Sirius. I should have said it sooner, but what with everything that happened it all ready seems so long ago. But it wasn’t, and I know you must miss him, and I’m sorry.’ He looked down at the sheets that he had twisted round his hands, unwrapping and smoothing them compulsively to avoid looking up.

Remus shifted forwards in his seat, sitting on the edge with his elbows rested on the bed. ‘We will discuss this later,’ he said softly, placing his fingers under Harry’s chin to lift his gaze. ‘When we have both finished reeling from all you have just been through, and when I feel you will truly believe me when I say it was not your fault.’ Harry sighed and nodded slowly. ‘So are you feeling better?’ Remus asked, leaning back again as Ron threw himself heavily on the end of the bed, Harry pulling his feet out the way just in time to avoid a painful encounter. ‘I thought you’d sleep for a while yet.’

‘I’m fine,’ Harry replied with sudden eagerness as he perked up considerably, throwing the covers to the side and making to get up, looking for his clothes but resigning himself to travelling in the infirmary’s issued pyjamas if it meant he could leave. ‘Can we go now? I’m sure Pomfrey wants to get back to her holiday.’

Remus smiled as Ron huffed, having just received a faceful of flying linen, before placing a hand on Harry’s shoulder to stop him. ‘No doubt she does,’ he said gently over Ron’s muttered cursing, pushing Harry carefully back down. ‘But if she catches you up now she’ll quite happily force another sleeping potion on you to keep you in bed, any plans of her own be damned.’ Harry scowled at the prospect, swinging his legs back up and dealing Ron a none to gentle kick in the ribs to get him to shift over. Remus rescued the covers, tucking them back in as Harry folded his arms sullenly, sending Remus a vaguely pleading look. ‘Just relax,’ he said in response. ‘Surely you’ve realised Poppy’s tendency by now to treat anxiety to leave as a symptom of a deeper illness.’ Harry glowered, but relaxed back into the pillows anyway. ‘She used to do it to me all the time. The more you say you’re fine, the more convinced she becomes you’re hiding something from her. Just sit back, look contrite, and suggest that perhaps more homely surroundings will make you feel more comfortable.’

‘How do you know all this?’ Ron asked with awe.

‘Trial and error,’ Remus said with a smile that suggested it had been long-suffering. ‘Doesn’t work for everyone though. Sirius was always all but thrown out by his ear, but then again he was usually either faking, or only here due to the effects of a prank gone wrong. Madam Pomfrey has always had a soft spot for someone though,’ he looked back to Harry. ‘Given how often you’re in here I’m not surprised she’s become so attached to you.’

‘I don’t know whether to be honoured or horrified,’ Harry admitted.

‘You should see if you can get her to hand over a few of her more general curse healing potions,’ Ron suggested, nudging Harry in the ribs. ‘What with the twins I could certainly do with a few. Just feed her some story about just in case, you know…’

‘Why don’t you order us all some food, Ron,’ Remus interrupted kindly, earning himself a look of intense happiness tinged with worship.

‘What, really?’

‘I am feeling rather peckish, and I would hate for your mother to think I had neglected the son she entrusted into my care,’ Ron nodded in sympathetic understanding. ‘I’m sure Harry must be starving too.’ Harry nodded grudgingly as Ron leapt towards the door.

‘I’ll be back in a flash,’ he declared, striking a suitably heroic pose.

‘You don’t have to go all the way to the kitchens,’ Remus offered. Ron all ready had the door open as was all but flying through it, grabbing the handle to slow himself without toppling over.

‘I don’t?’

‘Use the floo,’ Remus pointed to the oversized fireplace that dwarfed the room. ‘I’m sure Madam Pomfrey won’t mind. There should be a pot of powder just on the mantelpiece, hidden behind the gourd.’ Ron was rummaging through the items that lined the long shelf before Remus finished, his movements becoming decidedly more carefully after a loud clatter and a lucky catch.

When the flames had flared green and Ron sank to his knees, face disappearing into the fire, Remus leant over to the bed. ‘Harry,’ he said quietly as the beginnings of a complicated and specific order floated across the room. ‘I don’t think you should tell Ron and Hermione what happened, or at least not everything.’

‘You’re referring to Snape again, aren’t you,’ Harry hissed with a frown. ‘Not exactly subtle.’

‘The less people who know, the better.’

Harry let out a scoffing noise. ‘Personally I think its more accurate the other way round. Everyone needs to know how much of a traitor he is.’

‘But he isn’t one Harry.’ Remus hadn’t wanted to send Ron away in the hope that his presence would force Harry to listen where he could no longer rant and shout without drawing attention. With the growing urge to do so himself he was beginning to wish he had.

‘Not yet, perhaps.’

Remus looked saddened. ‘Can you really not see that if you make everyone believe he is, he is more likely to actually become so?’

‘If he was trustworthy it shouldn’t matter what I say!’ Harry snarled angrily. ‘If you really believed in him as much as you claim to do so then what does it matter what I say, as surely no one will believe me?’ What could he say to that? Severus had never done anything to help his reputation in this regard, preferring to come across as a warped and bitter man. In many respects he had dug his own grave, as people would be all too willing to pounce on the apparent confirmation they had been right about him all along. Human nature could be a very fickle thing.

‘You say you want to avoid the future you saw,’ he attempted to argue instead. ‘And the only way to do that would be to keep Severus on our side, but you insist on pushing him out.’

‘I’m avoiding it by showing people the truth before it is too late.’ Remus didn’t even attempt to cling to the thread of doubt that had entered Harry’s voice as it was completely dwarfed by the determination that accompanied it.

‘Harry, please try to understand.’

‘I am trying,’ Harry said with frustration, whether at Remus’ constant pushing or his own thoughts. ‘Really I am. But you didn’t go through what I did.’

‘If you tell everyone then Severus won’t have to do anything,’ Remus was pleading now, both he and Harry knew it, and Harry at least looked marginally ill at ease and discomforted for it. ‘He’ll be condemned on your word alone. Do you want to be responsible for that?’

‘Given the alternative…’ Remus hid the relief he felt at the doubt that was now even more evident in Harry’s voice. Not that he believed Harry doubted in his assumptions on Snape at all, but that he was considering he could possibly be approaching the situation in the wrong way gave Remus a touch of hope.

‘At least give him a chance,’ he grasped desperately, talking quickly before Harry could resolve the dispute with himself. ‘Hold off telling everyone until you are absolutely certain.’

‘I can’t lie to Ron,’ Harry said plaintively.

‘Then don’t,’ Remus conceded, ‘But do me one favour, please, and tell him and Hermione together.’

Harry’s forehead creased, his eyebrows knotting together in mystification. ‘Why?’

‘So I can rest knowing that at least one person will approach this with a level head.’

Harry scowled at Remus’ grateful tone. ‘Fine,’ he said without grace, inwcing as his scar gave a mild twinge.

‘How’s your head?’

Harry cast Remus a suspicious look.

‘Fine.’

Remus shook his head in silent mirth. ‘I take it that if I were to ask you how you slept, your answer there would also be fine; and whether your fingers or toes still feel numb would probably warrant a similar response, right?’

‘It doesn’t hurt much really,’ Harry added reluctantly.

‘What happened?’

Harry considered playing ignorant, but decided it wasn’t worth it. ‘Voldemort was torturing Snape for something.’

‘Do you know what?’

‘Messing up his perfect plans?’ Harry suggested sarcastically.

It was like getting blood from a stone. ‘Did you hear him actually say that?’

‘No,’ Harry admitted unwillingly. ‘But he was bloody furious yet still satisfied about something too.’ He looked round as Ron approached again, a large grin on his face and arms full to bursting, leaving a trail of splattered mess in his wake that Remus hastily cleaned with a quick spell before the mediwitch could return.

‘They’re just cooking it,’ he offered as though to explain a lack of food, despite the fact that he could barely manage what he had. ‘But Dobby sent these up for us in the meantime.’ The bottom half of the bed practically disappeared under a mountain of pasties, fruit and miscellaneous items Harry couldn’t quite identify, Ron snagging an apple as Remus examined a worrying pink and green sugary creation. He and Harry shared a quick look, as Harry nodded minutely before Ron’s loud voice once again rang to the corners of the room. ‘Not sure exactly how big Dobby thinks this army of yours is, but he seems determined it gets a proper meal.’

***


Snape was limping only slightly as he entered the Headmasters Office for the second time that day. It had been a choice; he could allow the slight lurch every time his tender left leg hit the floor, or he could force himself into his usual sweeping stalk with a grimace that gave away what he was hiding anyway. At least with the former he wouldn’t have to suffer actually telling Albus what pained him so, as though the man were his damn nursemaid, thusly cutting down the list of irritating questions he would be facing by one. And whilst there was little Potions couldn’t achieve, in the right hands, there were some things best left to time to heal. Not that he hadn’t liberally doused what he could with concoctions to blunt the icy claws that scraped at his mind and the tremors that shook his muscles. He had done the best he could to limit the sympathy and pity he was currently receiving from the Headmaster’s gaze.

‘All did not go well, I assume?’ Albus said gently, breaking the tense silence as he conjured the Potion’s Master a chair, one Snape couldn’t help noticing was rather more padded and comfortable than usual. Pride kicked in with a frown as he strode towards it and his leg protested with a heated twinge, forcing him once again to slow and bear the worried stare for a moment longer.

‘All went remarkably well, considering.’ He slumped downwards with less grace than he had intended, the muscles in his leg still stiff and strained and not accommodating when it came to bending, forcing him to hold the limb outstretched in front of him as he leant back to prevent toppling over. Regardless of his apparently relaxed stance, nothing in his posture indicated he was as such.

Albus quirked an eyebrow, studying Snape intently over the rims of his glasses. ‘Forgive me, but it has been a long time since I have seen such…physical evidence of your suffering.’ He was not deterred as Snape bared his teeth in a silent snarl. ‘If it did indeed go as well as you state, I doubt you would be so obviously favouring your right leg.’

‘Nothing more than an overzealous curse and a bad fall,’ Snape excused tersely. A deep itch had taken up residence as payment for his aborted attempt to lessen the appearance of his injury, one that was slowly growing and felt as if needles were being driven through his very bones. He managed a derisive sneer and a curl of his lips, resisting the almost overpowering urge to grab the offending limb and tear his nails through the flesh itself in an endeavour to lessen the stabbing sensation. ‘An unintended outcome, although I am sure it was not regretted. I guarantee to you I have suffered worse.’ Snape hoped it was guilt on the Headmaster’s part at the unavoidable truth of the statement that stopped him from pointing out the larger truth it was hiding. That or he sincerely did not see it, apt as the old man was at ignoring that which he did not want to see.

‘Voldemort was not angry at your news?’

‘He was, however most of his rage was aimed at others beyond the simple messenger,’ Snape lied easily, reminding himself over and over that he did not feel bad for doing so. It would, after all, prove to be for the best as he deflected the subject onwards. ‘And if you were ever in any doubt over Potter’s story, I do believe it has been proved misplaced.’ Snape was beginning to hate the office all ready, with its cheery colours that stood brightly under the afternoon sun streaming contentedly through the windows. Normally he would have to have been subjected to it for far longer to achieve this level of intense loathing. He longed for the dungeons though, for their quiet shadows and peaceful silences. ‘The Dark Lord has assigned me a new task.’

The Headmaster reached across his desk, spindling fingers closing round a small, yellow sweet before popping it absently into his smiling mouth, eyes never leaving Snape’s. ‘And what is that?’

‘To watch over Draco.’

There was a crunch of candy as Albus shook his head in amusement, an action that did nothing to soothe Snape’s growing discomfort, as his leg prickled in time to the growing pounding in his head. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep until the potions had done their work and his body felt like his again, but that wasn’t a choice he could even entertain. ‘Given your grave tone I was expecting something much more dire.’

Snape regarded the Headmaster with something approaching smug satisfaction. ‘To watch over Draco,’ he continued haughtily, ‘and ensure he doesn’t fail in his latest task.’ He paused for effect in much the same way that Albus was so inclined to do, aware of the pettiness of the action but not caring, making his voice suitably calm and composed before deigning to continue. ‘He has been instructed to kill you.’

Dumbledore merely smiled benignly, confirming Snape’s long-standing belief that the damn lemon sweets were, in fact, drugged. ‘Is that all?’

Snape felt his headache jump up several notches. ‘What do you mean, is that all?’ he ground out through gritted teeth, his jaw clenched painfully so the words were somewhat muffled. ‘Is it not enough?’

Albus was still smiling, humouring him, like an overexcited child on the verge of throwing a tantrum, Snape was inclined to believe. That was what it felt like. ‘As you were so eager to point out only moments ago, it is not a surprising development.’

Snape snapped his mouth shut quickly to prevent himself from uttering the response he had wanted to give and save himself from wasting the breath. There was one thing he had to know though. ‘You’re still going to let him return to the school, aren’t you?’

‘It would be somewhat difficult for you to watch over him if I did not.’ Simple, reasonable, and yet still completely and utterly wrong, even if Snape couldn’t yet formulate the words as to why.

‘Perhaps you’d like me to take the time to teach him the proper wand movements the killing curse requires whilst I’m here then,’ he sneered instead. ‘At least that way it will be a quick and relatively painless experience, at least for you.’ He left the implied message they both knew was there unsaid. Snape was not one for gushing declarations of sentimentality. Not that sarcasm was the most helpful of tools itself, but damn it all if it didn’t make him feel better. ‘Conversely, though, it would be somewhat difficult for him to kill you if you expelled him. It’s not as if you don’t have adequate reason.’

‘The board of Governors,’ Albus continued, his tone laden with infinite tolerance for the ignorance of the World, ‘on which I must remind you Lucius Malfoy sat for many years, would not take kindly to my expelling a student merely on the basis of the word of a distraught young man and a former Death Eater.’ Which was exactly what Snape would always be. He had a hard time arguing, even to himself, that they were wrong in their bigotry now though.

He pushed the thoughts aside. Now was not the time to dwell on bitterness. No doubt he would have plenty of opportunity to do so come the future. ‘Lucius Malfoy is currently rotting in Azkaban,’ he pointed out logically instead, ‘and thusly in no position to complain about the treatment of his son.’

‘Nevertheless remnants of his influence remain, and could make life very difficult indeed.’ Albus regarded his office wistfully, ‘and having only just removed the final lingering traces of pink and kittens, and even pink kittens, from my office, I would not relish the arrival of another Dolores Umbridge. Draco Malfoy will return at the beginning of September.’

‘The boy has been marked, Albus.’ Snape said, allowing an uncharacteristic flash of hope to create an image of the Headmaster rearing angrily from his desk declaring all Malfoy’s hereby banished from the castle for all eternity from this day forth. He was, unsurprisingly, disappointed.

‘You of all people should know that is not the end of the road for him.’

‘But we are talking about your life here,’ Snape declared with emphatic frustration. ‘How can you be so utterly apathetic?’

‘I will not throw away the life of a child merely to safeguard my own,’ Albus had almost raised his voice, fixing Snape with a disappointed look as the blasted bird in the corner roused itself once again from its perch, letting out a raucous squawk that startled Snape into grasping the edge of the desk in front of him, and swooping out the window as though it too had been insulted by the comment. Or perhaps it simply did not appreciate his company, Snape considered, relaxing his grip. It was, after all, the very embodiment of light and goodness. ‘Besides, young Malfoy will not only have you to watch over him, but Harry also. Do not forget the debt the two share.’

‘Might share, Albus. Might,’ Snape sighed, suddenly feeling inexplicably tired. ‘It seems to me that the debt will only arise in the event of failure anyhow, failure that you seem to be actively courting.’

Albus reached out across the desk to pat one of Snape’s hands kindly, his skin soft and papery. ‘I do not believe I could have placed my life in better hands.’ Snape shook his head minutely.

‘You are too important to risk in this way.’

‘I am flattered, although your sentiment is somewhat misguided.’ Snape knew what was coming next, though that didn’t stop him hating it. ‘There are those more important than myself in this war.’

‘Potter,’ Snape spat with disgust, pulling his hand away. ‘And what do you think will become of him in the event of your death?’ His eyes flashed with questioning accusation.

‘You talk as though I were all but awaiting burial,’ there was a hint of reproach in Dumbledore’s voice. ‘I have half a mind to be insulted.’

‘Only half?’ Snape had never liked being scolded as the hairs on the back of his neck rose defensively. ‘Obviously I am not trying quite hard enough then.’

‘And we do not have time for you to wallow in self pity.’

‘Perhaps then,’ Snape snarled viciously, ‘you have the time to explain to me exactly what a Horcrux is instead?’ He followed the question with an inquiring hum in the back of his throat. ‘Or were you hoping that what with everything else that has happened I would forget?’

Albus had the audacity to look stunned. ‘You do not know?’

‘I would not be asking if I did so.’ A guilty silence emanated from the Headmaster as he composed himself under the Potion Master’s scrutiny.

‘My apologies,’ he finally spoke, ‘but when you claimed ignorance before, I believed you merely intent on deflecting the conversation away from yourself and distracting Harry.’ Snape snorted quietly to himself as Dumbledore’s expression shifted to mild curiosity. ‘In all your research,’ and Snape knew exactly what he meant by research, ‘you have never even heard mention of them?’

His reply was flat and firm. ‘No.’

‘I am surprised.’

‘Please Albus,’ Snape said disparagingly, shifting his weight in the seat. ‘If the Dark Lord is using them I can only imagine how inherently evil they must be, and I would like to consider myself at least slightly more morally inclined than him.’

‘Well,’ shock did not suit the Headmaster, so unused to it as he probably was. Were he not momentarily impotent with blinding rage Snape might have taken pleasure in proving the man as fallible and capable of jumping to the wrong conclusions as anyone else. Somehow his mistakes normally had the benefit of looking less so and being easily brushed over, leaving only the illusion of unfailing knowledge. ‘As you must have realised from what Harry said, although I doubt he realised the full implications of what he was told himself, a Horcrux contains a piece of a soul.’

‘In this case the Dark Lord’s.’ Snape filled in the obvious as Albus nodded in unnecessary confirmation.

‘It is how he has achieved immortality.’

At least that question was finally answered then, as in the past it had struck Snape as one fundamental to defeating the Dark Lord that was just not being asked. He took great care in his own following question too, seeking out the appropriate tone and testing it in his mind before finally asking. ‘How is it even possible to create such a thing?’

‘They are not at item that is heavily researched,’ Albus was excusing himself all ready, anger and annoyance feeding the ache in Snape’s head, which had returned full force, accompanied with the bitter taste of bile and nausea. He should have waited longer before allowing the meeting, pride be damned. At least then he would have been more controlled, instead of having his focus split between hiding the shudders that were once again starting to manifest and analysing every statement for pitfalls. ‘Even my knowledge on them has had to be pulled together from several resources, each of which was reluctant to say too much.’

‘For fear of someone actually using them?’ Snape snapped in accusation. ‘If your inability to give me a straight answer is out of reluctance to share such delicate information with someone of my disposition, let me assure you I am perfectly content with my soul just the way it is, and have absolutely no desire to see it torn to shreds.’ He did blanch slightly under the look Albus gave him, acknowledging that he may have pushed the Headmaster’s good temper too far.

‘I am merely letting you know that I am by no means a definitive expert on the subject,’ Snape rarely heard Albus’ voice so cold, and felt a twinge of guilt at his own words. ‘And as such I bear the possibility of not being entirely accurate.’

‘I shall keep that in mind,’ Snape said stiffly, his words passing for enough of an apology to thaw the icy gaze. ‘As you were saying…’

Albus leant forwards again, hands clasped in front of him as he stared at a spot on the desk in front of him. ‘A Horcrux contains a piece of a persons soul and stores it, safeguards it if you will, in the seemingly innocent guise of a separate object,’ he stopped, steepling his fingers as he looked up and over the rims of his glasses. ‘It is considered the darkest of curses, and it is a curse, not only for what it does, but also how it is created.’

‘How?’

‘The Killing Curse,’ Dumbledore sighed, his hands falling to the desk to hit the soft leather inlay. ‘At the moment it is cast is gives the caster an opportunity to cleave his soul in two, and to store one of these fragments wherever he so chooses, binding it to the earth in a way that even death cannot overcome.’ Snape endeavoured to sit up straighter, despite the protest of his leg. ‘Every attempt to do so, however, renders the original shard that little bit less human.’

‘And you believe the Dark Lord has one of these?’ It was no good pretending he wasn’t fascinated, as Snape very much was.

‘No.’

Had he missed something? ‘No?’

‘I believe he has six.’

‘Six?’ Snape said in flat disbelief.

‘Well, five now, since Harry has all ready destroyed one.’

‘He has?’ Snape barely managed to ask weakly.

‘In his second year. The diary that possessed young Ginny Weasley,’ Snape vaguely recalled the incident, although he had not been aware of the exact details at the time. Now he understood a little better why the Headmaster had been so guarded. ‘He stabbed it with the broken tooth of a basilisk.’

‘A piece of the Dark Lord was in the school, controlling students?’ Why was he so surprised? For all the irritation it caused Snape to admit it, Potter had had a point in at least some of his argument with Dumbledore. Something didn’t quite add up though, as his memory threw up an earlier comment. ‘Why did you not realise what it was earlier?’ Albus had the good grace to look ashamed.

‘It is something I could have found sooner, but my relationship with the only person who knew of such a thing made it difficult, and I was reluctant to push,’ he admitted. ‘For that reason the knowledge such a thing existed was only recently brought to my attention,’

‘By whom?’

‘Horace Slughorn.’

‘And you believed him?’ Snape let out a snort.

‘I had no reason not to, he shared the information freely.’

‘Even if said sharing was a little late.’

‘I do believe he was ashamed of the part he played.’

‘Played in what?’ Snape narrowed his eyes as Dumbledore let out a heavy breath.

‘He was the one who gave the necessary information to Voldemort.’

Snape looked dumbfounded, tearing through his memories to verify for himself what he all ready knew. ‘Slughorn has never and would never bear the Dark Mark. He is no servant of the Dark Lord.’

Albus smiled, but unlike before it was worn and frayed. ‘I am fully aware of that, my dear boy; else I would not have extended the Potions position to him.’ Not that the contrary would have been a surprise to anyone with eyes. ‘However, whilst he has never served the Dark Lord, he did have the misfortune of teaching him.’

‘Slughorn taught the Dark Lord.’ Snape confirmed slowly, lest he had misheard.

‘Hard as it is to imagine, but Voldemort was once a child, and as such did once attend Hogwarts.’ Was he really so formidable in Snape’s mind that such an image seemed absurd? ‘He was a couple of years below Minerva, if memory serves me correctly. Obviously she has no idea of this, although I would be surprised if she did not suspect. Very charismatic young man, Tom Riddle was too, good at getting what he wanted out of people.’

‘And so Slughorn told him of Horcruxes,’ Snape said with disgust to mask his unease at the information. ‘I am almost ashamed to call the man a Slytherin.’

‘Indeed, however all he did was make the boy aware that they existed; and how was he to foresee the use they would be put to in the future?’ Snape didn’t comment that the malevolent evil of the Dark Lord would probably have shone like a beacon since the moment the man could speak. Slughorn had been blind and stupid; but on that same note it had to be admitted that so, most probably, had Albus. ‘Tom found the incantation of his own accord. It is thanks to Horace though that we know there are, or at least were, six. His memory, when I finally wrested the true version from him, confirms this.’

‘Do you know what they are?’ That he even had to ask disconcerted Snape, as he all ready found himself longing for the return of the old image of an infallible, dependable Albus. He had learnt too much in the last hours to believe in that again though, as the Headmaster let out another weary sigh to further shatter the image.

‘I have my suspicions. In his arrogance Tom has made himself somewhat predictable. Few items would be worthy of the honour of bearing part of his soul.’ Snape couldn’t deny that. The Dark Lord had forever hampered himself with his notion of nobility that so often presented itself in excessive and unsurprising dramatics. ‘I have it on good authority that he has had access to a number of artefacts belonging to the Founders.’ Snape’s gaze instantly flickered to the sword resting on the shelf before Albus could answer his worry. ‘No, not that one, fortunately. Both it and the Sorting Hat have remained safe. Harry himself, however, referred to a locket in his message from young Draco, in many ways confirming the information I have. The locket in question belonged to Salazar Slytherin. On this basis I am inclined to believe that he also has the Hufflepuff Cup.’ Snape had only heard rumours of the latter item, and nothing of the former, but anything once belonging to the more disreputable Founder had no doubt been in the hands of a darker inclined family, and they were notorious for hiding and hoarding their possessions like no other.

He could fill in the details with his own research later though, when his thoughts didn’t slice jagged scars behind his eyes. ‘That still leaves another three.’

‘Yes, and I admit that on one of them I still have no lead or even the faintest idea of what it could be.’ Snape wondered briefly exactly when it was Albus had become so old. ‘I believe it to be something of Ravenclaw’s, but my searching has turned up nothing.’

‘Then you know the artefact he chose to represent Gryffindor?’ Severus deduced.

‘Yes, and no.’

Snape’s temper snapped tight again. ‘Must I drag every last bit of information from you like venom from an Acromantula?’

‘My apologies, but this is all very much supposition on my part, and even as I tell you I am still sorting much of it out in my mind.’ Snape forced himself to remain patient. ‘I believe I know the identity of the Gryffindor Horcrux, or what the Gryffindor Horcrux was intended to be and what he has settled with in it’s absence.’

‘I’m not sure I understand.’

‘As I said, a Horcrux is created through a violent act of murder…the Killing Curse. And just as Voldemort chose only the rarest and most meaningful items to house the fragments of his soul, so he would only allow said fragments to be created by a death equally as meaningful.’ It took only a moment for realisation to hit Snape.

‘You can’t mean…’

‘I believe he intended to use the death of Harry to create his final Horcrux, the Gryffindor Horcrux if you will,’ something had fallen from the Headmaster, the sense that everything would turn out all right in the end. ‘And how apt would it be that the death of the son of such highly regarded Gryffindor family be the means by which he achieved it.’

‘He failed though, didn’t he?’

‘Oh yes, at the time. The curse rebounded, destroying his body whilst his soul was still bound to the Earth. No Horcrux was created that night, although he has done so since.’ Albus touched the tip of his wand to the pensieve that still rested on the side of the desk from earlier, perusing the contents briefly with a look of concentration. ‘As you know, seven is a number of great power, and Tom was adamant he would have his soul in seven pieces, even if reduced to settling for the resting place of his final,’ the image of a familiar coiled snake leapt out the silvery liquid in a scene Snape did not recognise, slithering down a staircase before its tongue flickered in the direction of an elderly muggle. ‘I believe he used Nagini. Whilst not Gryffindor she still has meaning to him, both as his familiar and as the symbol she serves of both his House and his bloodline.’

There was something obscene about the image, which Dumbledore mercifully banished before it could play out to its clear conclusion. ‘Which leaves the final one, then.’

‘Ah yes, and happily it is the one of which I am most certain, and whose location I believe I have.’ Snape’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as the missing spark returned to the Headmaster, taking with it the feeling of absolute uselessness. ‘A small shack in the village of Little Hangleton; what I have discovered to be his ancestral home. I have visited it once all ready, and seen with my own eyes where the item sits. I regret I have not found a safe passage through the protections, however,’ his eyes met Snape’s once again with optimism. ‘Perhaps this is an issue on which you can help though.’

‘You need my help in breaking the curses on this artefact?’ It appeared the only logical request in every way except that this was not Snape’s area of expertise, unless it required a Potion’s based method to defeat it. He could identify the curses with relative ease, he supposed, but better Flitwick, or even Minerva, for actually breaking them. They would struggle no more than he on ascertaining what they were to begin with.

‘Not quite, for the longer I have spent studying them the more I am convinced there is no way they can be broken.’

‘Then what is it you need from me?’ Snape asked with confusion as Albus took a deep breath.

‘I need you to help me survive them.’

Snape looked suddenly suspicious, eyes narrowing with resentment. ‘This is a test, isn’t it?’ He demanded, as everything slotted into place.

‘No Severus,’ Albus said tiredly, his face falling with disappointment, or perhaps it was grief over everything he had finally accepted he had lost. ‘This is trust.’

***


‘I told you it would work,’ Remus said quietly as Madam Pomfrey bustled round a quickly dressing Harry, rattling off last minute bits of advice as he tucked the t-shirt Ron had provided into his oversized trousers and rammed his wand into the back pocket, relishing in the feel of clean clothes. ‘Never doubt the word of a Marauder.’

‘I won’t,’ Harry promised emphatically, making a last minute check for anything he might have forgotten. Not that he had brought much with him.

‘Shall we get you back then?’ Remus took a couple of vials Madam Pomfrey handed out, placing each one in a separate pocket before sliding open a nearby drawer to retrieve the cloak Harry had previously worn. He shook it out with a snap, casting a cleaning charm before wrapping it back round Harry’s shoulders. ‘Can’t have you getting cold, Poppy here would have my guts.’

‘The cheek,’ the mediwitch reprimanded, although it was with a smile as she ushered them towards the fireplace.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Grimmauld Place, of course,’ Remus took the offered pot of powder with an inclination of his head in thanks. ‘Where else?’

‘Not the Burrow?’ Harry looked hopeful.

‘Sorry,’ Remus looked liked he at least understood Harry’s reluctance to go back to the place, ‘but it isn’t protected enough. Ron’s staying there though, aren’t you,’ Ron nodded eagerly, although that was possibly more at the thought of having another person with him to stand off against his brothers than his love of the building itself. ‘As are Molly and Ginny.’

‘Not to mention the twins’ll be popping round,’ there was definitely a malicious edge that spoke of most horrible revenge in Ron’s voice. ‘They’re dying to show you their new shop too, if we can convince Mum to take us to Diagon Alley.’

‘They got a shop?’ Harry asked in surprise as Remus herded him towards the hearth, all but pouring the floo powder into his hand.

‘Uh huh. Some mysterious benefactor gave them a fortune,’ Harry hoped he didn’t look too guilty, ‘for some deranged reason. It’s pretty cool there, you know, if you’re willing to risk leaving a different shape.’ He smiled as Ron continued grumbling even as Harry gave his directions and the flames rose up around him, sucking him down and spinning him round before spitting him out into the room he frequently wished he had never left to begin with.

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